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BREAKING NEWS

Fire alarms "faulty" at Delhi blaze hotel, prompting mass reinspections

Fire alarms "faulty" at Delhi blaze hotel, prompting mass reinspections
Onlookers stand on the rooftop of a building as they look at a hotel where a fire broke out in New Delhi, India, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis -
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Anushree Fadnavis(Reuters)
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By Alasdair Pal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A hotel that caught fire in the Indian capital on Tuesday, killing 17 people, passed safety checks 14 months ago, but an investigation has revealed breaches of regulations, such as faulty alarms, prompting a mass reinspection of other hotels.

Poorly enforced regulations lead to thousands of deaths in fires across India every year and officials in New Delhi say an overstretched fire service is hampering safety efforts.

The Hotel Arpit Palace passed a fire safety check in December 2017, but a copy of the initial police investigation seen by Reuters showed several breaches of fire regulations, including a lack of signs to guide guests to exits and fire alarms that did not work.

Delhi's fire service, which is responsible for safety inspections as well as fighting fires, is now reviewing certificates issued to more than 1,500 hotels in one of India's tourist hubs, a senior fire official told Reuters.

But stretched resources mean the reinspection process could take months.

"Fire officers have to do a lot of work," said Vipin Kental, Delhi's chief fire officer. "We have to be inspectors and fight fires. We do not have the manpower."

The city has around 1,700 firefighters, he said, which is less than an eighth of the number in New York, a city with less than half of Delhi's population.

PREVENTABLE TRAGEDY

The fire is believed to have begun on the hotel's first floor, spreading quickly through wood-panelled corridors, police say. Among the dead were members of a wedding party from Kerala and a two Buddhist pilgrims from Myanmar.

"From the outside, the building looked intact, but inside everything was completely charred," a police officer told Reuters.

Two of the 17 died after jumping out of windows in desperation after failing to find emergency exits, added the officer, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to talk to the media.

"Fire preparedness is a matter of shockingly low priority in most parts of the country," said an editorial in the Indian Express, one of the country's leading newspapers.

A 2018 study by India's home ministry that found the country had just 2,000 of more than 8,500 fire stations it needs.

More than 17,000 people died in fires in 2015, according to data from the ministry, the last year for which figures are available, one of the largest causes of accidental death in India.

Fire safety is an issue for shanty towns and some of the country's most expensive real estate.

A day after the Arpit Palace disaster, more than 250 makeshift homes were destroyed in a slum in Paschim Puri, a poor area of New Delhi, though no one was killed.

In 2017, 14 people were killed during a birthday party at a high-end bar in India's financial capital Mumbai.

In several upscale neighbourhoods in Delhi, police shut hundreds of shops and restaurants last year for trading on floors meant for residential use, though many continue to operate illegally, residents say.

By the boarded-up Arpit Palace in the Karol Bagh area of New Delhi, wires from adjacent hotels still trail across the street, though staff there told Reuters they were complying with fire regulations.

Adding to the safety problems, poorly paid staff in the hotel and restaurant industries are often unable to help guests when fires break out, Kental said.

"They are not trained. They don't know what to do in the event of a fire," he said.

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Martin Howell and Nick Macfie)

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